The ageless quality of teenagers

One thing I’ve learned as a man trying to write in a genre that is mostly of the women, by the women and for the women is that I have plenty to learn. Something that happened during my writers’ group meeting last week suggested maybe we all do.

In a YA novel about a sixteen-year-old who runs away from her country home to live in the city in 1919, a woman has her heroine doing something she’s never done before: fret over her appearance.

A man in the group said he couldn’t imagine a girl reaching age sixteen without doing that. The women in the room whole-heartedly agreed.

All settled, then right? Maybe not.

My far-from-exhaustive research shows that girls today get concerned about their looks at an earlier age than their counterparts of a century ago.

A report in Women’s E-News blames teen media for doting on appearance, noting that “it wasn’t always thus.”

“The body has become the central personal project of American girls,” Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, says in the article. “This priority makes girls today vastly different from their Victorian counterparts. Although girls in the past and present display many common developmental characteristics—such as self-consciousness, sensitivity to peers and an interest in establishing an independent identity—before the 20th century, girls simply did not organize their thinking about themselves around their bodies.”

A Los Angeles Times article posted at an endocrinologist’s website says another problem is that puberty is rearing its monstrous head earlier due to environmental pollution and the overuse of hormones in food production.

Decidedly unromantic either way.

When I was listening to the writers’ group discussion, my mind wandered to a more innocent time. Not the 1910s. The 1970s. And, yes, as wicked as they were, the ’70s still qualify as more innocent than now.

I can remember getting ready in my room for a Friday-night dance, putting on a Mott the Hoople record and combing and recombing my pathetically straight, limp hair until I had something resembling that cool Gary Collins look. The look lasted only until I went outside, of course, which meant that as soon as I reached the dance, I was in front of a restroom mirror along with several dudes with similarly pathetic hair trying to achieve some mythical look that would snare us the Terri Garrs and Jaclyn Smiths of our dreams.

Who, apparently, were in a bathroom just a few feet away, combing their hair to death.

And I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that something very much like this went on back in 1919.

1 thought on “The ageless quality of teenagers”

  1. I think it would very much depend on the 16 year-old, but yes, that seems late for her not to have a sense of her value in the world. After all, in those days, unless a woman was born with an inheritance, her ability to feed and clothe herself would be based upon her physical attractiveness.

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